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Hear how music history rolled out: Cellist, pianist play Beethoven cycle

Published March 23, 2008 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Music history's march from Classicism to Romanticism followed the life story of one man: Ludwig van Beethoven. The whole journey - from innocent exuberance to heroic passion to profound introspection - unfolds in microcosm this week in Salt Lake City: English cellist Colin Carr will perform all of Beethoven's works for cello and piano with American pianist Tom Sauer during two concerts at Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

Carr, 50, is best-known in Utah for his three appearances here with the Golub-Kaplan-Carr trio, with whom he toured and recorded for more than two decades.

After 20 years of playing trios, Carr was ready for new challenges. Performing Beethoven's entire oeuvre for cello and piano, spread over two concerts, has proven to be "simply the best chamber music project that a cellist could ever wish to do," he said.

Amy Leung, director of the Virtuoso Series, studied cello with Carr at New York's Eastman School of Music and remembers him as "a phenomenal musician of the highest order." To Leung, the Beethoven sonatas are the mainstay of classical cello repertoire. She's thrilled that an agreement between her series and the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City is making it possible for Carr to give two concerts here - enough time to play all of them.

Audiences at both concerts will hear every note Beethoven wrote for cello and piano, but could trace the trajectory of Beethoven's musical development by attending either one, Carr said. Each evening includes music from the composer's early, middle and late periods, allowing listeners to make comparisons.

Although Carr has played Beethoven's cello sonatas and themes-and-variations for much of his life, juxtaposing them in this way brought fresh insights.

"When I hear all these pieces together, I see such stark contrasts that I'd never been aware of. It's fascinating," he said.

Beethoven was 25 when he wrote the two cello sonatas of Opus 5 in 1796.

"There isn't a melody in them that doesn't feel youthful and joyful and exuberant and impulsive," Carr said.

By 1815, when the composer's last two cello sonatas were written, the piano had developed into a more sonorous instrument and Beethoven had gained maturity as an artist and a man. The works are shorter and more profound - distilled to their musical essence - and break the boundaries of classical music forms.

"The feeling is so different," Carr said. "It's like the difference between drinking chocolate malted milk - the early works - then some kind of power drink. The last two sonatas are so intense and power-packed."

Throughout the sonatas, every note counts, Carr said.

"There isn't a single note or phrase or gesture in any of these pieces that you can get away with not sculpting. Every little gesture and phrase has to be worked note by note."

It's something Carr and Sauer enjoy doing - following the trail Beethoven blazed when he wrote the first pieces for piano and cello as equal partners.

"It's a journey that you only want to undertake with someone you know well," Carr said, referring to Sauer, his longtime musical collaborator. "Everything is so intertwined, and the detail is so complex. Tom and I have played these pieces a lot, going back many years. But it has been a treat, a trip, to do them as cycles. It's probably the single most gratifying musical experience I've ever had."

Beethoven clearly intended the sonatas to be heard as "important music," Carr said. But he also wrote three sets of theme and variations for cello: two based on melodies from Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" and one on themes from Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabeus."

"With the variations, the intention was to write music which is entertaining, somewhat lighter - a distraction from important things," Carr said. At this week's concerts, the serious sonatas will be interspersed with the sparkling variations.

"It's like a meal with several courses, and between each course comes a sorbet, to clear the palate," Carr said.

While growing up in Liverpool, Carr's first passion was soccer, not cello. He still plays the game whenever he can and follows the scores of Liverpool's teams faithfully. He's avid about fitness and sports; his wife and three children will join him in Utah for a few days of skiing.

A bunch of Beethoven

* CELLIST COLIN CARR and pianist Tom Sauer will play all of Beethoven's works for cello and piano during two performances at Salt Lake City's Libby Gardner Hall on the University of Utah campus.

* THE CONCERTS are Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

* TICKETS for each concert are $25; $10 for students. Call 801-581-7100, or visit http://www.kingsburyhall.org.